By - Tuesday 16th April, 2013

Andrew Dickinson sheds some light on the river that was once our ancestors’ lifeblood

We humans are watery creatures. Evolution tells us that life started in the seas and then moved on to dry land and evolved from there. In pregnancy, the foetus is carried in a watery sac of amniotic fluid and we are born with a mammalian diving reflex. Our bodies are more than 60% water and without it life would cease to exist. We send multimillion dollar probes off in to space to search other planets for signs of life and scientists get excited when ‘dry river beds’ or fluid-made ‘erosion marks’ are found on their topography. We take water for granted here in the industrialised western world; we turn a tap and there it is – clean, potable water, and we waste it unconcernedly, smug in the knowledge that it will be there again and again. We also have an abusive relationship with water. We dump tons of rubbish in it; we poison it and affect the multitude of marine systems that form one of the planet’s complex food chains that we then exploit. We curse the rain and snow as it inconveniences us going about our everyday lives. Many times we hear of someone who is fortunate to retire to a cottage by the sea as the lure of the oceans still resonates in us from long, not understood or realised reasons.

The realisation of the preciousness of water was brought home to me by the drought and heat wave of 1976. I can remember the excitement in my neighbourhood and the placing of vessels in the garden to collect the rain when the first pitter patter of raindrops started to fall at the end of that long, hot, dry spell. Parts of the country were restricted to collecting water from standpipes and a minister for droughts was appointed who told us all to cut water consumption by half or face rationing. The start of that year was low on rainfall and the government started to get concerned about water levels in April and May. Hosepipe bans were unheard of but suddenly became the words on everyone’s lips. We played on the Purley Way playing fields and Croydon Airfield as we did most summers and the grass was bleached and burnt to varying shades of yellow through to scorched amber. The open air Purley Way Lido was packed each day as people sought leisurely ways to cool off.

I started secondary school at the end of that summer where the walk to school took me past Duppas Hill and the fields there were the same bleached yellow, conjuring up images in my mind of Saharan deserts. The images have stayed with me and I can remember the greening of them as each week passed and autumn rainfall thankfully returned to normal.

As a toddler visiting grandparents in Battersea (where I was born), the weekend was not complete without a walk along the Thames riverbank or, if the tide was out, a walk on the Thames shoreline which was very exciting; witnessing unexploded bombs and fuselage from a Junkers 88 (or so my dad told me), bloated animal carcasses, oil drums, massive amounts of wood, and all the discards of one of the world’s biggest cities industries disposing of all its unwanted everyday items as conveniently as it could.

For the reciprocal visit my granddad always took me to Waddon Ponds – to feed the ducks. Not as exciting as the Thames shoreline admittedly. To me, it was just a pond with some flapping, squawking creatures that would leave a mess on my scarlet wellies and gave me a nasty peck if they weren’t getting a share of the breadcrumbs. What was unknown and therefore unappreciated by my young mind was that the ponds were the only place in town where the river Wandle could be seen on the surface, especially as the other above-ground location in Wandle Park had been culverted underground in 1967. The river was heavily used by industry along its length and had become, for want of a better expression, a sewer, so in the interests of public health it was diverted underground for good. Not any more, though.

Thanks to a really strong and devoted ‘Friends of Wandle Park’ group, funding from Barratt Homes (who are building apartments on the next door former British Gas site), the Environment Agency, Croydon Council, and Heritage Lottery Fund, the Mayor of London’s help, and a London Park Scheme where the park polled 5300 votes (which was the competition’s second highest of 47 London parks), over £3 million has been raised and has been spent on bringing the river back to the surface with appropriate landscaped riverbanks and restoring much of the park’s original Victorian features (plus one or two modern additions to ensure that it appeals to all generations). This is all fantastic news and there is going to be an official opening on July 6th with a mini-festival in the park.

The fact that the water is regarded as healthy enough for fish to be re-introduced is what fills me with joy

That’s where I come in again. I’m finding it hard to stay away: within a five minute trip in the car I can walk along the riverbank. I’m a child again. The tinkling and gurgling of the water over the stones is music to my ears. It’s such a rich, life affirming sound that I’ve recorded it on my phone to listen to. On Sunday just gone there was a pair of mating ducks going about their courting ritual, and it made my smile even broader. The surrounding landscaping is all very new and raw and needs time to grow, mature, and mellow and when it does, people, we have one beautiful park.

The Wandle Trust, which was formed 12 years ago and is dedicated to a programme of ‘water quality improvements and habitat restoration works’, is hoping to ‘turn Croydon into a fisherman’s haven’ by releasing hundreds of brown trout into the river – a half century after the Wandle was declared a sewer. I’m no fisherman so that aspect doesn’t fill me with any great excitement, but just the fact that the water is regarded as healthy enough for fish to be re-introduced is what fills me with joy.

We as a borough are blessed with many wonderful parks and open spaces, many with very interesting histories that go unsung and there are not many parks nationally that have had such a large sum of money spent on them. The park was pleasant before and reasonably well-used. The hope now is that it attracts more visitors to come and respectfully appreciate what has been achieved and just stand on the ornamental bridge and enjoy the return to the surface of one of Croydon’s rivers.

Andrew Dickinson

Andrew Dickinson

I'm a long term resident of Croydon and I'm lucky to live and work in the borough. As a schoolboy my proudest moments were playing representative football for Croydon where I would fight tooth and nail to win for the borough and contribute towards its sporting reputation. For 18 years I worked up in London and became distanced from the town. Now I've re-engaged with the place over the last 20 years and feel frustrated in finding a way to vent my passion for Croydon (as I'm too old to play football) so I'm always on the lookout for any new initiatives to bring positivity to the place. I live on Bramley Hill with my lovely family and I have an allotment locally. I'm a keen amateur in gardening, environmentalism, permaculture, photography and website design. I'm an oyster mushroom farmer, run a social enterprise called Green Croydon, I'm part of the Croydon Fairtrade steering group, part of the Croydon ReUse Organisation, current chair of Croydon Transition Town and a community gardener; I'm on the borough Food Programme, Parks and Social Enterprise steering groups and a community apple presser. I currently work for the council as an officer creating and promoting community events in the beautiful Wandle Park. I put on the Croydon Environmental Fair each year and the Summer of Love theme and festival was something I dreamed up. I inspired the 'I would make Croydon better by' theme. There's also the Give and Take events in Surrey Street. I started the monthly Arts, Crafts and Vintage market in Exchange Square. Formerly I was a Turf Projects trustee, a Croydon Radio presenter and part of the Old Town business association.Between all this, I write the occasional article for the Citizen. I support local artists and local musicians by enabling the space for them to create I also support local independent journalism.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/liz.sheppardjones Liz Sheppard-Jones

    Don’t want to sound bitter and twisted, but I lived 2 minutes walk from Wandle Park for 13 years. OK it was a park, but it was terribly flat and terribly dull. As soon as I left they put in a lake in it, and a coffee shop is also rumoured. What is THAT about?

    • http://twitter.com/tomblackuk Tom Black

      They were just waiting for you to go. Didn’t you read the Parliamentary ‘Liz Is Not Allowed Nice Things’ Act of 1999?

  • Philip George Harfleet

    Wandle Park was my playground during the war and three or four years after it. A place that has been changed time and time again, but I remember it as a magical, mysterious and exciting place.
    Magical as I stood on the footbridge waiting for steam trains to swoosh underneath, like some fierce dragon.
    Mysterious when venturing into the dark caverns below the other bridge further up the park.
    Exciting when the fairground people came to build their rides and swings and stalls. When the noise, the lights and the crowds came to spend their bobs, tanners and pennies on all and sundry. And then, when it was time for the travelling people to pack up and go, I would earn a few shillings helping these hardworking men and women dismantle their wonderful machines and rides.
    It was also a beautifully serene place when drifting quietly on the lake, around the islands and under the little bridges. The reflection of the rippling water on the underside of these bridges fascinated me. It still does, in my mind’s eye.
    Even the sometimes acrid smells of the nearby factories had strange comforting feel. And the pig-sties could be seen nearby. And there was a slaughter-house! Which I knew of but never went near!
    Yes, in my childhood days Wandle Park was a world within a world.

    • http://twitter.com/greencroydon Andrew Dickinson

      Wow.that’s beautiful Phillip – thank you.what lovely memories it brings back for you.make sure you are there on the 6th July (weather permitting)

  • http://twitter.com/greencroydon Andrew Dickinson

    Yes a cafe is planned and new changing rooms/warden station/toilets.When the river was culverted back in ’67 there wasn’t much imagination used in landscaping the area. Football pitches were dominant.Remember this was 1 year after world cup success so everywhere pitches were in demand.I hope the cafe is busy enough to justify it.With the large blocks of flats being built on the purley way in front of the park it should be.